Some jazz groups emphasize heartbreaking ballad-playing or intense, blasting solos. Those kinds of broad gestures are almost entirely absent from the music of drummer Charles Rumback, who performs Saturday with bassist John Tate and pianist Jim Baker at Merrimans’ Playhouse in South Bend.
In 2017, Rumback led two trio albums, “Tag Book” and “Threes,” both released on Ears & Eyes Records. Both albums feature bassist John Tate and pianist Jim Baker. Neither album relies on huge climaxes and big moments. Rumback doesn’t even award himself any drum solos. The music moves forward in a moment-to-moment fashion, and listeners need to stay engaged with the details as they develop, rather than waiting for the next highlight.
“It’s not soloist music,” Rumback says by telephone from his home in Chicago. “It’s not a matter of someone blowing and then handing it off to so-and-so. Everyone’s listening and ready to jump in at any point. One of us might lay out and let somebody else take it, but it’s only what happens naturally.”
This philosophy also pervades Rumback’s work as a sideman and as a member of Chicago-based ensembles Stirrup and Whirlpool. The musicians in those groups do not wail. They take a more painterly approach, allowing melody, harmony and texture to operate without the interference of ego-driven solo spotlights. The music emerges free of clichés, and Rumback doesn’t fall into the jazz-drummer trap of being forever compared to Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey. Unlike most of his colleagues in the jazz field, Rumback doesn’t have to play the game of tracing every new move back to what forbears have done at previous points on the greater jazz timeline.
“I understand where that comes from, because it can be hard to find ways to talk about this stuff that is really beyond words,” he says. “The intention behind those comparisons is usually good, but it tends to miss the point that you need to hear it on its own terms. Of course it all comes from somewhere — we’re not free of that — but we try to make everything original, not derivative.”
Although Rumback will do a cover tune every once in a while, ranging from jazz compositions by Andrew Hill and Stanley Cowell to a fine re-imagining of David Bowie’s “Art Decade,” the focus is on original material most of the time. Just as he is not concerned with putting on a drum clinic when he’s improvising, Rumback doesn’t try to show off his composition chops in a gratuitous way, either. One of his original pieces, titled “Right Reasons,” has shown up on his records in duo, trio and quintet settings. He and his fellow musicians never seem to tire of exploring the song’s themes, even though the piece is quite sparse.
“It’s funny — that’s barely even a piece of music. It’s such a small amount of written material,” Rumback says. “What makes it work is what the musicians do with it.”
The drummer regularly re-records prior material in subsequent recording sessions just to see what might blossom.
“Usually, it’s to hear what someone will do with an older piece. Most of the time it won’t make it onto the record unless there’s something new and special about it,” he says. “The trio version of ‘Right Reasons’ is my favorite of all the ones we’ve done, so that’s the justification. It sounds new and different again.”
A crucial component to Rumback’s worldview is that genre distinctions are becoming essentially meaningless. Although he draws an audience that’s mostly jazz-related, his fans might be more likely to recognize “Art Decade” than something by Art Tatum.
“I don’t think in terms of doing a jazz gig or a rock gig,” he says. “Rather than putting things in a template, I think about what I can contribute to the music. If you listen without expectations, the music will speak for itself.”